Lost in the background of the coronavirus catastrophe is the collapse of American diplomacy. The United States should be the convening authority and coordinator of a response to a global threat now taking the lives of its own citizens. Instead, the Trump administration has sought to increase antagonism abroad, even with its closest friends. The White House imposed a travel ban from Europe with no planning or notification to European allies, even while asking those countries for supplies to protect American health workers. The administration lashed out daily at competitors and adversaries such as China and Iran, even as it denied that America’s infection rate was growing exponentially. The World Health Organization now says that the United States may soon become the global epicenter of the pandemic.
Time for recriminations will come once the virus is defeated, but with American infections now accelerating, the United States has an urgent interest in filling the global leadership void to help coordinate the response to this stateless scourge. Despite the G20 convening virtually last week, the Trump administration has never explained whether and how the United States might rally partners, competitors, and even adversaries to share best practices, establish international standards, and surge essential resources to outbreak zones. The United States reportedly blocked a joint statement of G7 foreign ministers this week because there was no support for its unilateral demand that the statement use Wuhan Virus as opposed to the agreed-upon scientific terminology of coronavirus or COVID-19. That’s a self-defeating demand in a crisis, when the priority is to bring major powers together to save lives.
I have some experience with coalition building, having helped build one of the world’s largest to confront the Islamic State. Only five years ago, ISIS controlled 8 million people, and had attracted 40,000 recruits from more than 100 countries, established affiliates on three continents, and organized attacks across the globe. While Donald Trump touts the coalition’s military campaign, its diplomatic initiatives—United Nations mandates to stop foreign fighters; counter-messaging programs; cooperation with the private sector to remove extremist content online; delivering humanitarian resources; and rapid information sharing between partnered intelligence and law-enforcement agencies—also reduced collective risk and saved countless lives.
President Trump still heralds the success of this coalition, one of the few diplomatic initiatives he carried forward from his predecessor. Now including more than 80 international partners, it was built through what used to be the awesome power of American diplomacy, combined with the desire around the world for steady American leadership to confront shared challenges.
The model is not unique to the security field. Even through the height of the Cold War, the United States led the world and cooperated with the Soviet Union to mass produce a polio vaccine and eradicate naturally recurring smallpox. President George W. Bush established a global coalition to address the crisis of AIDS in Africa, mobilizing more than 50 countries and raising over $80 billion to fight the epidemic. President Barack Obama created a partnership to combat Ebola in West Africa, rallying more than 60 countries and allotting billions of dollars to contain and halt its spread. These two recent initiatives together saved millions of lives thanks to American leadership, initiative, and painstaking diplomacy to activate the world and confront a challenge head-on. President Bush’s initiative alone saved 17 million people.
It’s not too late for Trump to build on these past models, but he needs to act now. He should immediately appoint a senior coordinator to direct an American-led international response. This coordinator should report to the president and be involved in task forces created to manage our domestic response. This person’s objective is to establish a coalition of countries and international organizations as soon as possible to convene virtually daily. This contact group should then coordinate with affected countries, experts from the WHO and UN, and private-sector entities. Many existing structures can offer a foundation for this initiative, including the G7 and G20, as can relevant public-health entities, such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA). This new organization would be separate from those, keeping its focus solely on containing the coronavirus pandemic, similar to how the Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State included the European Union, INTERPOL, and NATO but had a fixed and narrow mission.
The tasks for such a coalition are vital to protecting our own citizens. For example, a coalition can establish screening standards for international airports; mobilize global resources for the development, testing, and rapid deployment of a vaccine; and collect best practices from countries, such as South Korea and Singapore, that responded effectively to the virus. The partnership should mobilize and direct resources for mass production and deployment of testing kits to potential outbreak zones, including camps for the displaced in the Middle East where the virus can resurge; push for free exchange of information from medical experts and scientists, keeping such crucial exchanges above geostrategic competitions; and help locate, organize, and send essential equipment to areas with critical shortages, including American cities.
Members of this new coalition can establish standards for verified information, calling out fake news that endangers lives, and inviting social-media companies to participate. They can also push for norms to reduce risks of recurrence, including through the regulation or abolishment of wild-animal “wet markets” in China—where the virus likely originated—even while gaining from China’s experience, scientists, and mass production of essential goods. This is not the moment for America to be lecturing the world and scoring rhetorical points. The lack of American leadership is already creating a tragedy of the commons, whereby every actor—from nation-states to localities—pursues its own interests in a shared crisis to the detriment of all.
Indeed, coalition building is not philanthropic. The United States has commonly used diplomacy to build partnerships in crises since the end of World War II, because they help protect American lives and interests. The new group proposed here should establish a protocol to attack future outbreaks before they spread, whether it is a new coronavirus outbreak later this year or something worse. According to the CEPI, if a future lethal virus carries an airborne pathogen (unlike the coronavirus), it might kill more than 30 million people. That type of statistic was once unimaginable. No longer, and America is clearly unprepared.
Diplomacy and global leadership are long-standing attributes of American power. Trump risks squandering both. In recent days, his administration reportedly pleaded with South Korea for essential supplies even after spending a year shaking down Seoul for billions of dollars to retain American forces there. The bill for these shortsighted policies is coming due. At a moment of shared crisis, Trump is ceding America’s traditional role to others, including China, which will leave the United States weaker and more isolated as the crisis recedes. With so many around the world desperate and seeking direction, Washington appears sidelined and ineffective.
A proven diplomatic toolkit is available to help reverse these trends, should the president choose to look.